Illinois Assistant To The Head Coach Gary Nottingham was a head coach at the Division II level for 19 years, and he worked hard at recruiting on a shoestring budget. The past 7 years, he has been witness to the recruiting process at the major college level. He probably understands the game as well as anyone could.
Recruiting is an art, not a science. Focus today seems centered on how high different player are rated. While it is true the National Champion every year usually has one or more high school superstars on its roster, it is also true many top players are overlooked and thus ignored by those searching for the next hot player.
Nottingham is convinced rankings of players today are completely inaccurate except perhaps for the top few players.
"The hot topic in all sports these days is we want to rate everybody. In all honesty, about 50% of the guys being rated the people never see. It's word of mouth. And secondly, you know nothing about the individual. The quality of their character, how hard they work. So a lot of the things that make you a special player are not evaluated in those rankings.
"Stephon Curry was a great player at Davidson. He was a first round draft choice and is playing great in the NBA. The year he makes his great run, his brother Seth is a senior and is having a great high school year. Some people say they don't know anything about him, yada, yada, yada.
"He winds up at Liberty University. Not one high major offered him a scholarship. His father was a pro and a great human being. His brother is a pro, one of the top players in the country, great student, great citizen. Wouldn't you think somebody would say, 'To hell with rankings, I'm taking him?'
"Despite the bloodlines, nobody does it. Then he goes to Liberty and averages 22-23 points a game as a freshman and ends up transferring to Duke. They have 10 high school All-Americans, and Goodman's Blog says the best player on the practice floor is Seth Curry.
"The guy has talent, he can make shots, he has character, he has work ethic. But he had a father who had a different viewpoint. He didn't sell his kids out to every AAU team and summer program around. He didn't send them to every camp.
"Instead, he took them into the gym and worked with them. Dell Curry was actually a coach, and who better to teach his kids how to become better basketball players than him? But they don't get rated as high as they should.
"My question is, what is the definition of the difference between those ranked #40 and #50? It's an opinion, but people take it as the gospel. Like my granddad used to say, 'Opinions are like ass holes. Everybody''s got one.' That doesn't mean they're all good.
"You can't judge progress. You can't judge maturity. You can't judge heart. You certainly can't judge work ethic on four or five evaluations. In basketball, you're the body of your work."
Nottingham is also convinced that the best recruiters are not always the ones rated the highest.
"These recruiting gurus put these different recruiters in their magazines. A lot of times, it has to do with the logo on your shirt and whether your program's hot. I think the thing that's good in a state like Illinois is that we can get the people we have.
"How hard recruiting is depends on what state you're in. If you're in a state that doesn't produce very many players and you've got to leave the state, you're really on the road and have no home ties. We're fortunate that Illinois is a great basketball state, and the areas around us are great."
Bruce Weber is a tireless recruiter who takes to the road at every opportunity, in season and out. Except for when another Illini assistant is sick or otherwise unavailable, Nottingham doesn't go out on the road to recruit. But he knows that game extremely well. It is a tough way to make a living, especially at the Division II level in places like Glenville State and University Of South Carolina--Spartanburg.
"Recruiting is something that takes its toll on you. In my case, recruiting was really hard. One, you had to recruit a hundred kids to get five. Because nobody goes to bed at night saying, 'I want to play basketball at Glenville State College.'
"You have to evaluate so many kids, make so many phone calls. We probably spent more money eating than what my recruiting budget was. So you had to do so much stuff by phone call, so much by videotape.
"When I was at Glenville, Charlotte was a big area for us. It was five hours away. And we got a lot of kids out of Washington, D.C. On an off day, it was not unusual for me to drive to D.C., which was 4 and a half hours one way, watch a practice, watch a game and maybe try to catch another game and then turn around and drive back the same day because you had no money.
"And then when the season was over, I might drive into North Carolina and see 4-6 jucos a day and four high schools. You kind of make a tour of places where you know people and they have players for you. So you go in, watch a kid work out one time and you talk to him. And they make a decision.
"The player you want is sitting there waiting for a Division I scholarship, any shape, form or type. Some are waiting on Division I walkon offers at a high major. It was so taxing on you, especially the battle for top players. Recruiting is hard on you, not for the evaluation of games and players but for the mental anguish.
"You're like an adoptive parent. You may have spent 2-3 years on this kid, a phone call once a week, the whole deal. And then that adoptive kid scorns you. It becomes tough. And then sometimes you have to go the other way and make a decision that someone else is better. All the work is hard, but the anguish comes from all the hard work and nothing comes out of it."
Nottingham is still willing to recruit, and he hopes for a head job at a higher level than he previously experienced. He bristles at the realization many athletic directors' views of the ideal coach are often skewed and not based on a true understanding of what is required of the job.
"When I came here, I was still wanting to recruit. But today it becomes a downfall. When someone considers you for another job, they say you haven't been on the road for 3-4 years. My answer to that is that it's not rocket science.
"Recruiting is evaluating personnel, networking, making contacts. In my case, it's rejuvenated me because it does take its toll. It's hard because a lot of it doesn't make any sense.
"There are so many things you can't control, good, bad and indifferent. It's a difficult process for everybody. It's difficult for the kid, the parents. At this level, there are so many people that want to be a part of it, so many people pulling different directions.
"There are a lot of people who's heart and soul is for Illinois or whatever university. They want you because they love you and want to see you win. But there are others who are pulling you for their own personal benefit. There's so many voices, so many opinions.
"Then you've got 15-20 high-profile coaches plus high school and AAU coaches. It's a lot of information to digest. It's a strange game. You can do everything right and still lose the guy.
"When I was at Glenville, I'd like to have a dollar for every kid who said, 'I really like you, I like your system, I really like your players. In fact, I like you better than where I'm going. But they have a full scholarship and you don't.' Or, that's where my mom wants me to go. On the other hand, you can come in late and everything clicks and you get the guy."
If he doesn't get another head coaching job, Nottingham realizes he still has it pretty good at Illinois. Weber understands and is sensitive to his needs, and he has the time and peace of mind to raise his family properly.
"I do actually miss being on the road now, but when I came I didn't miss it. And it's been a blessing for me because I have young kids, I married late. I've been able to see my son and daughter do a lot of things I wasn't able to do before.
"I've always been a free spirit, kind of a maverick. But from a family standpoint I'm very traditional because you have one shot at that."